A Worthwhile Read: A Georgia Tech Student Reflects on #PBL and Internships

“[J]obs that teach you what you DON’T want to do are just as valuable as those that teach you what you DO want to do, just like classes that teach you what you DON’T want to study in college are just as valuable as those that DO. And this is perhaps the most important thing to remember.”

I really want to encourage anyone who sees this post to please share it. I have had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Sibilia since she was a freshman in high school and to watch her evolution from my PBL classroom to her current status as a junior at Georgia Tech has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my career. She has been kind enough to share her reflections in the past on my blog, but this post may best sum up the benefits and purpose of PBL longitudinally. I hope you enjoy reading what’s inside as much as I did.

By Maddie Sibilia

Whew. It’s truly been a whirlwind of a 6 months. Since accepting my first two internship offers in late December, I’ve grown and learned and changed so much. Though I’m currently only at the halfway point of my summer internship, there’s a lot that I would like to share for the benefit of both current high school/college students – to realize the impact of having real life experiences in the classroom and out – as well as educators – to realize the value that PBL has in the real world. My experiences are by no means the same as those of my peers, but I do believe that they represent the spectrum of how internships can play out. So let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

January 4, 2016. It’s the first day of work at my first internship with McClain International. This company, one with a history of being a family-run business, is a small subsidiary of HEICO Aerospace. A vast majority of their work is reverse engineering airplane piece parts – anything from a knuckle on the armrest of a commercial airline seat and occasional engine components, to a button assembly and the base of a footrest. What is meant by reverse engineering, though? When parts break or need replacement, airline companies don’t want to have to pay the inflated price that the original manufacturer might charge, so they pay McClain to figure out how that part was made and reproduce it. Instead of starting with a drawing and ending with a finished part, they start with the finished part and work backwards toward the drawing, then can reproduce it. It’s fairly small scale work a majority of the time, and it’s definitely a small business.

On the first day, I was the normal combination of nervous and excited – I still really had no idea what to expect or what I was getting myself into, but it was work experience that I needed, and a paycheck every two weeks is also a nice perk. I went in hoping to put to practice the CAD (Computer Aided Design) modeling skills that I had learned in class the year before, hoping to really see the impact of my work, and hoping to learn and be excited about what I was doing. Only a couple months in, I wasn’t doing nearly as much CAD work as I had anticipated, and while I had learned a little bit about some of the terminology and machines used on the shop floor, the majority of my time was spent at my desk completing paperwork for manufacturing, part inspection, and other processes.

Now, I have never been the person who has ample amounts of free time. Outside of the classroom in high school, I swam competitively, participated in community service, and was involved in numerous leadership organizations and honor societies. In the classroom, PBL always kept me busy; with the projects I worked on, there was never downtime – we were either researching for the project or actively working with our hands and building the product. Similarly, in college I find myself just as involved, if not more so; I’m in a social sorority, was in a Freshman Leadership Organization (or FLO as we call them) my first year, am on staff for FASET (Georgia Tech’s new student orientation) and Wreck Camp (an extended orientation program), and am the meet director for next year’s Collegiate Club Swimming & Diving National Championships, which boasted 1800 athletes this year. Classes at Georgia Tech are challenging too, and between all of it, I’m quite busy. While these involvements continued in the spring semester, for the first time, I didn’t feel I was being challenged by the work I was doing during the day. Inputting information into spreadsheets every day was not necessarily what I thought I had signed up for, and quite frankly, I was starting to get bored.

As someone who continually challenged the status quo and pushed boundaries with PBL in high school and with projects in college, this type of work was not exciting, interesting, or forthcoming to me. I quickly began to realize that the manufacturing side of the aerospace industry, or maybe just this small of a business, was not where I wanted to spend my life working. I was counting down the days until I would start my summer internship five weeks before my current one was ending.

Some may question why I took the job if I was disliking it so much, and even I questioned that. Why didn’t I un-accept the offer after receiving the one from Lockheed Martin that I knew I wanted more? A few reasons. First, I follow through with commitments, and I had committed my spring semester to this job; I wasn’t going to back out, especially with not knowing whether I would like it or not. I firmly believe that this is an important quality, especially for millennials and younger, who don’t seem to have a good reputation with older generations. Second, any work experience when you’re starting out is good work experience; to get a job, you need a job. Having a steady income as a broke college student isn’t a bad thing either. Third, jobs that teach you what you DON’T want to do are just as valuable as those that teach you what you DO want to do, just like classes that teach you what you DON’T want to study in college are just as valuable as those that DO. And this is perhaps the most important thing to remember. Had I not gone through this semester, I could have gone on thinking that manufacturing was an area I wanted to explore, and who knows? Maybe I would have accepted a full-time offer further down the road, and would have spent years kicking myself in the foot rather than a few months. So thank goodness I figured it out sooner rather than later. I don’t regret my spring internship at all; yes there were times I dreaded going to work to complete paperwork, but I learned a lot about myself that semester – that I wanted to do more hands-on work, be busier, and interact with more people; that’s the type of environment I’ve always thrived in after all.

The beautiful thing about the two internships I accepted is that they’re completely, 100% different, and I did that purposefully. College is really the only time in your life that you can have a large breadth of experiences in a comparatively short amount of time, and that’s something to be taken advantage of. Here goes round two…

May 9, 2016. Only three days after my last day at McClain International, I began my summer internship at Lockheed Martin. My previous boss, who was definitely biased towards a small company environment, warned me that I might not like how bureaucratic a large company like Lockheed would be – with all of the government regulations, long chains of people something has to go through for approval, etc. While all of this is true, I still remained beyond excited to be able to work for a world-leading and industry-leading corporation. I’m an intern in the Flight Test & Evaluation department for the C-130 program, which has been in existence for 63+ years. Sounds pretty cool right? Well let me tell you, it’s really freaking cool.

Though I’m not allowed to disclose in detail the projects that I’ve seen and worked on, I can give a rough summary of what my department does. We get the final plane and final instruments after everyone else is done with them, and our job is to make sure each flight instrument and procedure works the way it’s supposed to, even after going through checks with the engineers that designed and made them. We create problem reports and test plans, execute the tests, report results, and go back and redo tests if needed. This happens in instrumentation labs, in flight simulators, and on the physical plane. We do it by ourselves and directly with the customer. One of the coolest weeks I’ve had here so far was a week of customer demonstrations in the flight simulator; at least five countries, including the US, were represented. Sure, some of the testing itself can get monotonous after a while, but directly seeing the impact that these aircraft have internationally is incredible. Furthermore, learning the capabilities of these planes and the instruments inside them has given me a whole new appreciation for military aircraft and aircraft in general. As someone who previously only though she wanted to work “outside of Earth’s atmosphere” (as my dad likes to say my tagline should be), I could honestly see myself here in the future.

“[PBL] will teach you the value of hard work; the value of being able to do what you love and have passion for; the value of a packed day with a lot of work to do; the value of being able to articulate yourself and your work to your peers and superiors; the value of being a continuous learner, doer, and thinker; the value of having enough confidence in your abilities to speak about and act on them.”

I’ve always been a big-picture person. The big picture is not something that I got at McClain, but here I get it. I can see everything being built, assembled, and tested from start to finish. I’ve always been a people-person. I’ve worked directly with the people who our products serve, which is a rewarding thing to be able to do. I’ve always been a hands-on person. I feel like a five year old every time I’m in a lab, simulator, or cockpit because I just want to push all the buttons, flip switches, and turn dials, but that’s the best feeling. Yes, there are reports to be written, computer work to do, emails to write, meetings to attend, but the big picture, hands-on work, and human communication are all there. I’m giddy with excitement when I tell my roommates or my family about my job, which serves a stark contrast from the spring semester.

How exactly does PBL fit into these experiences? And why should you or your student give it a shot? Anyone can take a whack at it, but those that truly apply themselves, test their limits, and delve into the experience are those that will get the most out of it. It will teach you the value of hard work; the value of being able to do what you love and have passion for; the value of a packed day with a lot of work to do; the value of being able to articulate yourself and your work to your peers and superiors; the value of being a continuous learner, doer, and thinker; the value of having enough confidence in your abilities to speak about and act on them. These are values not easily taught in a traditional classroom environment, and I cannot stress enough how well PBL instilled them within me. I truly believe that I was offered both of my internships in part because of what PBL taught me and what it allowed me to accomplish, and I still seeing myself taking what I learned in my three years of it and applying it in my world past high school. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve even found what I want to do for the rest of my life.

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